Poetry is a construct made of breath, and longing, in an attempt to gain access to the place where language lives.
She Sings in the Shower
Now, in the fiftieth year of her sentence,
Gloria W., who tried when she was sixteen
to rob a store with her son’s toy gun,
has appealed to the governor again. But
he has no time, the pandemic is spreading
all over Louisiana. So she sings in the shower,
a song about a colored girl escaping through
the bayous, her child slung across her back,
and imagines her cellmates are all her
grandchildren, listening to her story
about snakes, and ‘gators, and the virus
she caught in the swamps one time.
My recent collection, Country of Warm Snow (Shearsman Books, 2020) is a further exploration of the dilemma of living in two places at once: the immigrant’s life in dream and memory, and the day to day experiences of survival in an adopted clime.
The title comes from a work I saw at the Folk Art Museum in NYC, by outsider artist Josep Baque, which represents, “the interior of some marvelous islands at two million meters above sea level, unexplored, uninhabitable by civilized beings”, as a country of warm snow.
Some of the poems herein go back quite a few years, but the collection began to really adhere in the period 2017-2018, after the publication of Voices Carry (Shearsman 2017). My publisher gave the year of publication as 2020, which seemed a long way off at that time. I presented the ms to other publishers during the wait time, while honing the contents into what the book would finally become.
One night, during the pandemic lockdown, going to bed in a rather depressed state, I scrolled through my emails, and there, in one that I had missed somehow, were the page proofs from Shearsman. I cried, I shouted to the rooftops in Belmont, Trinidad, in the house where I grew up.
This book is important as I think it represents the culmination of an exploration that began with my first collection, An Island of His Own (Junction Press, 1992). It reflects upon experiences and desires peculiar to the immigrant, that historical phenomenon upon whom modern terms like refugee and alien now apply. Broadly, I envision a world audience, but I speak directly to those like myself, who hail from the Caribbean.
What type of pitch do we use
that our sidewalks crumble so,
and when we fix them, why do
they sit so high above the road
that the elderly must be helped
down, one trembling leg after
the other? Ah, these dips and
rises, said one tourist, dizzy from
the sun, resting in Cipriani’s short
shadow, shirt dark with sweat.
Still, he seems happy, munching
on his doubles, the wife nearby
taking pictures. Tomorrow they’ll
visit La Brea. Their guide will explain
the nature of crude, how it glazes
the streets of London, Washington.
But here, it makes turtlebacks
of our lanes, breaks up our step,
as joy does for Miss Dickinson,
my poetry teacher explained.
While in lockdown in Trinidad, where I’ve been since January 2020, I experienced a burst of creativity—poems coming early every morning, for an extended period of time. These coalesced in a ms I was fortunate to have published last October, News of the Living: Corona Poems (Broadstone Books, 2020).
It followed close on the heels of Country of Warm Snow. What a thing— two books in one year, the Year of the Virus, so to speak!
The poems I’m writing now have a strong sense of home, of rediscovery. Having lived abroad for more than fifty years, with brief periods of return to Trinidad, I am finding surprises, like turning a corner to come into full view of the foothills that surround Belmont, looking up to see bright, yellow poui in full bloom. Or the surprising cries of children playing in the lane where I live, a sound strangely absent for years. Like my own childhood come back to visit. My next book will pick its way among these flowers.
My writing process is not very clearly defined. It works in spurts— periods of flurried activity, periods of reflection. A lot of time is spent in observation, in the recording of images that might replay in poems.
I believe the poem is an act of discovery, begun anew each time. My aspiration is to present poems that are revelatory, that may bring about a further understanding of the life we live.
Someone wrote me recently asking if I would be willing to participate in a literary event, confessing an apprehension about approaching me, saying she found me to be kind of ‘stern’ in demeanor. The truth is, I always feel the opposite about myself, that I present a warm, welcoming exterior. There’s a famous adage, about there being no art to find the mind’s (something, I forget) in the face.
Donde Está to Derek Walcott
Only last week I sent you new work,
thinking how many lines I should have
changed before you received them,
frowning, asking the old question—
Donde está la música, señor?
I had hoped you would read past the first
ten pages or so, getting to the good stuff,
glasses reflecting the evening light
coming off the Vigie headland, making sure
my endings were no longer shrill, that
they stopped like the wooden
wheels of a donkey cart, the animal
knowing where better than the driver.
I’ve been practicing, Derek, holding each word
like a dancer before the dip, in the backyards
where we boys readied ourselves for the girls.
I did not paint at an early age, as you did.
I looked at the living portraits of uncles and aunts,
what the sagaboys made of their rough-stitched,
determined selves. These are what
I sent you, Sir, in disguise, hoping they would
get through, that the winds might carry them
to where you sat facing the sea. I had no idea
they had already arrived, and you had
thrown up your hands, impatient
with one small error.
This is the dying season, everyone
confined to his house, children at
the window, singing an old folksong,
Every time you pass, you tickle me.
Their faces are bright, like the sun over
the Savannah, where huts and tents
remaining from Carnival wait to be
dismantled till this time next year.
By then I should have finished my
own calypso, and my voice should
have returned, as strong as ever,
thanks to the air, and these hills.
For more information on Mervyn Taylor:
Interview at the Sangre Grande Public Library for World Poetry Day: https://fb.watch/4kynjfO8G
Interview & reading with Susana H. Case on Bar Crawl Radio: https://shows.acast.com/bar-crawl-radio/episodes/mentoring-poets-susana-h-case-mervyn-taylor
Mervyn Taylor is a Trinidad-born poet who divides his time between Brooklyn, NY, and his native island.